The Indo-European Dragon-Slayer Myth
ACCORDING TO THE Indo-Europeanist scholar E. Benveniste, the first Indo-Europeans, or, using politically incorrect terminology, “Aryans”, were distinguished by patriarchal extended families, ancestral cult, agriculture and livestock breeding, an aristocratic society of priests, warriors and farmers, worship of the “forces of nature”, and royal sacrifices (of which the most important one was Ashamedha, the horse sacrifice).
Mircea Eliade would most likely have pointed out that “primitive peoples” do not worship the forces of nature in and of themselves (rather, the forces of nature are seen as representatives of cosmic forces and gods) and that in this regard, the first Indo-Europeans were likely no exception. Aside from this remark, however, Benveniste certainly gives us a convenient summary of the unique traits of our ancestors. Many of these traits have also followed the Indo-Europeans across the world and throughout history. For an example, professor Georges Dumezil has studied how the tripartition of priests, warriors and farmers reoccurred in Indo-European societies from Ireland to India. But there is yet another unique trait which has followed them and which Benveniste does not mention in this analysis, namely that of the dragon-slayer myth.
Calvert Watkins – How to Kill a Dragon
Professor Calvert Watkins discusses the dragon-slayer myth in his massive work How to Kill a Dragon. Professor Watkins specializes in what is known as “comparative Indo-European poetry”, which means that he studies Indo-European poems, myths, prayers, stories, etc. He does not first and foremost study their content, but rather which words are being used, the structure of the sentences, the types of versification and so on. This makes How to Kill a Dragon an exceedingly complex and theoretical book, hence why it should only be recommended to linguistically inclined fanatics of Indo-European studies.
Professor Watkins writes that according to Benveniste, there are three discernable themes within the Vedic (Indo-Aryan, proto-Indian) dragon-slayer myth: A religious theme, describing the achievements of a victorious god, an epic theme of a hero’s struggle against what is usually a reptilian monster, and a mystical theme which describes the liberation of water.
The first theme entangles an Indo-Iranian god of war, who is often also a god of storms. The second theme also exists outside of the Indo-European cultural sphere; the hero slaying the serpent can be found among Semites, American peoples, Asians and others. The third theme is specifically Indo-European; the dragon has claimed the water for himself and prevents it from flowing freely. The world and mankind are consequently stricken with thirst. Watkins suspects that this theme originates from a time when the first Indo-Europeans were living in rather dry landscapes further north than India.
Watkins’ working method, studying words and phrases, is very useful. With it, he can show that the dragon-slayer myths of, for example, Ireland, Iran or Viking Age Scandinavia are directly “descended” from the original dragon-slayer myth, and therefore not “borrowed” from other peoples. This is due to the fact that the same words reoccur in the same sections, with the same word order, the same linguistic “formula” etc.
Indra and Vritra
Indra, the god of war, was the “divine protector” of the Aryans, who led them in the tales where they fight against the native population of India, the “Dasa”. Indra was also one of the first dragon-slayers. Vritra, the three-headed dragon, had claimed all of the water in the world for himself, and Indra killed the dragon in order to return the water to the world and to mankind. This is something of a “prototype” of the dragon-slayer myth. A dragon has usurped something essential to mankind, and is therefore slain by a hero.
Later dragon-slayer myths of fundamental importance include the Hittite struggle between the god Teshub and the dragon Illuyanka, Zeus’ fight against the one-hundred headed monster Typhon, Apollo’s struggle against the serpent Python and Thor’s battle against the Midgard serpent. Interestingly, Teshub, Thor and Zeus, like Indra, are not only war gods but also gods of thunder and storms.
For those with an interest in the traditionalist school, it is quite obvious that the theme of the dragon-slayer myth is that of a struggle between an Olympian sky god fighting a chtonic or even demonic dragon. This can also be seen in more general terms as a struggle between the cosmos and chaos. Ancient peoples often saw the dragon as a teacher, but only vague echoes of that are preserved in Indo-European mythologies (Sigurd learned to comprehend birds’ speech after devouring Fafnir’s heart, and Odin transformed himself into a serpent in order to obtain the mead of poetry, but again, these are merely vague echoes from times past).
From Myth to Epic
Over time, a change can be observed in the dragon-slayer myth among Indo-European peoples. While the original version of the story was a cosmic struggle between a god and a dragon, the myth later transformed into an epic tale with a more or less human hero as the protagonist. Here, we see the Iranian epic of Zahhak, who has two serpents on his shoulders and eats the brains of humans. Zahhak usurps the throne of Emperor Jamshid, but is later killed by the hero Feridun. Thus, the struggle has been humanized and is no longer one between gods. But the same themes remain, as we can tell in the story of Heracles and the multi-headed water dragon Hydra, as well as the Irish tale of Fergus mac Leti and the sea monster Muirdris. In Eastern Europe, too, there are many dragon-slayer myths, and as late as the 17th century a “hero” was by default equated to a dragon-slayer. Among the Albanians, one finds the peculiar draconic creature Bolla/Kulshedra (the Albanians are the only Indo-European people which professor Watkins does not discuss in his book, and their mythology is likely an unexplored goldmine for Indo-Europeanists). In North Germanic mythology, Sigurd the dragon-slayer slays the dragon Fafnir. In this version, the dragon does not hoard water, but rather gold. Professor Watkins writes that this was seen very negatively by Germanic peoples, since they believed that gold ought to flow freely between members of society and not be stockpiled to the benefit of none.
The dragon-slayer myth survived into the Christian era through, for example, the legend of Saint George and the Dragon. In this legend, the plot is still of a dragon hoarding a source of water, despite the addition of human sacrifice and a fair maiden.
Professor Watkins also demonstrates how language, certain phrases etc. from the dragon-slayer myth reoccurs in later tales, even when they are not concerned with the killing of dragons. For an example, in folk belief, certain incantations used the same terminology in order to kill a “worm” in the form of a disease. In the modern era, the dragon-slayer myth is a reoccurring central theme of the fantasy genre. It has also survived in political propaganda, which has encouraged the slaying of everything from “the debt dragon” to the serpent of Communism. Today, the water of our societies is not first and foremost usurped by large reptilians. Therefore, the dragon-slayers of our time should rather strive to slay the dragon of ethnomasochism, or the dragon of environmental destruction. But the overarching theme remains the same: the representatives of chthonic and demonic forces (soulless Capitalism and Communism, ethnomasochism, the destruction of the ecosphere) must be defeated by representatives of timeless, Olympian wisdom.
* * *
Source: Survive the Jive